Supporting our heroes on the COVID-19 frontline

March 26, 2020 Aaron Martin

Aaron Martin, the Chief Digital Officer at Providence, reflects on the efforts his innovation team and provides an overview of how they are using digital tools to help patients impacted by COVID-19 get care. This article was originally posted on Medium by the Providence Digital Innovation Group

For the last six years — as an internal technology incubator embedded within Providence — the members of the Digital Innovation Group have focused on supporting our clinical and operational teams in the development and deployment of digital solutions that make quality care more convenient and accessible for our patients.

As I reflect upon the last few weeks, I personally remember feeling helpless during 9–11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Short of giving blood, money or volunteering, there was little a techie could do to help. I think I speak for my team in saying how incredibly privileged we feel to be able to support our front-line health workers battling COVID-19 right now.

As the first case of coronavirus in the U.S. was being treated at Providence and the enormity of the task at hand soon came into focus, our role here at Providence Digital Innovation Group became crystal clear: How can we support and amplify the efforts of our front-line caregivers as they heroically combat this health crisis head-on? How can we give them leverage in helping patients? How can we help protect them?

For the last 15 days, we have focused our efforts on delivering technology solutions that support our clinical teams’ ability to better manage through the COVID-19 outbreak.

COVID Assessment & FAQ bot for COVID-19 (aka “Grace”). Within days we were able to leverage ‘Grace’ — a chatbot we’d previously developed — and pivot the experience to create the nation’s first virtual tool for quickly and safely assessing patients for COVID-19. This tool has recently been expanded to answer frequently asked questions as well. In the first few weeks, we helped over 70,000 patients and saw well over a million messages exchanged via this technology that directs consumers toward the most appropriate course of action. Our product and software engineering teams partnered closely with Microsoft whose AI team was incredibly responsive in building this capability in Grace.

Converting Grace to a COVID assessment tool was the brainchild of Amy Compton-Phillips, Providence’s chief clinical officer, who needed a quick/scalable way of helping patients self-assess. She knew that many patients — both the worried well and some with COVID — would soon be coming to our clinics and ED’s and needed a way of diverting the worried well from a potentially hazardous situation. She called me on a Saturday and our team was working on it within hours.

From a patient experience standpoint, Grace has been a way of relieving anxiety for the many patients who are concerned about their health situation. Grace, because it’s interactive, is just a little more reassuring for patients than simply reading a website. For Providence, it’s allowing our caregivers to focus on those who need their attention most — taking pressure off overcrowded emergency rooms and physical healthcare spaces. Microsoft quickly made this capability available to other health systems and it now powers the CDC’s website.

Scale Virtual Capacity through our DexCare Platform. For those who do appear to have conditions that require medical attention, our Coronavirus Assessment Tool is able to direct people through a seamless handoff into a virtual visit with a provider via Express Care Virtual. This creates a treatment cycle that is far more efficient and effective in delivering the care we need at scale and more safely — by keeping patients in their homes, as appropriate, during this outbreak.

We are even more fortunate that the technology we built supports the amazing Express Care team, which is part of the Ambulatory Care Network, led by Dave McAughan. In a matter of days, Dave’s team closed Express Care clinics to protect our caregivers and then pivoted the entire clinical team to take virtual visits. The volume of virtual visits spiked 10X and the number of providers working in virtual care shot up to over 70 across 7 states. And oh, by the way, Dave and the Express Care team also launched the service in Texas for good measure!

The need to transition our care model in a matter of days from a 90% brick-and-mortar in-clinic experience to a 90% virtual experience — at the scale required — would have been difficult to imagine in the days preceding COVID-19. We are fortunate to have built our same-day care platform, called DexCare, in a way that has enabled us to flex visit load and internal resources across modalities of care to meet this challenge.

Given its performance, other health systems are interested in this technology we’ve built as well. To that end, we launched our first external health system on Monday to help them battle COVID and several more health systems are now in the queue.

Patient Home Monitoring. Through Providence Ventures portfolio companies Twistle and Xealth, our Telehealth care team, led by Clinical Program Service Telehealth Chief Executive Dr. Todd Czartoski, is currently monitoring at home over 300 patients in Washington who are under investigation or have tested positive for COVID-19. These are patients with symptoms but who are not ill enough to be admitted to the hospital, thereby sparing precious in-patient beds. Through this program, patients receive take-home thermometers and pulse oximeter information alerting telehealth ICU nurse teams as needed if their symptoms become clinically worrisome. This program is currently being expanded to Oregon and California — enabling our hospitals to serve those most at need.

COVID-19 Consumer Education. A consumer’s most trusted source for health information is through local healthcare providers, so Providence Digital Innovation Group is supporting the outreach efforts of our health experts via our Marketing and Digital Experience teams. The Providence COVID page they launched has reached almost 250,000 patients, and we’re currently working on an expansion that includes a COVID microsite with more helpful content and information. In coordination with our care delivery teams, we’re pushing educational information to patients through email, SMS and our Health Connect digital applications.

Building Engagement Around Important Causes. Our digital outreach efforts have additionally supported awareness and how-to-help campaigns. A great example is the Providence “100 Million Mask Challenge.” This effort, started by Providence Chief Quality Officer Jen Bayersdorfer, Providence’s Chief Quality Officer, is engaging the public to make PPE and masks that will protect our caregivers. We’ve also raised close to $25,000 through a GoFundMe page that is supporting Homeless Shelters and Services that help our most vulnerable. This effort was instigated by Dr. Rhonda Medows who pointed out that the homeless will no doubt suffer the most during the COVID crisis and that making sure shelters have adequate cleaning supplies is a good first step.

Keeping our Team Healthy. Our success as a nation in beating COVID is almost entirely dependent upon the healthcare workers on the front line who are heroically battling this disease. The Providence Digital Innovation Group, in collaboration with the Clinical Program Services behavioral health team and Human Resources, is rolling out new tools that will improve access to mental health support resources for our caregivers. Providence caregivers will soon be able to rate their level of stress and be directed to appropriate resources to help them stay mentally healthy while they continue to aid those who are ill.

The investments we made over the last six years enabled us to have a flexible platform in place that can be leveraged in new ways; “big tech” relationships that can be quickly activated; the culture, speed and agility of a startup; and most importantly, a true partnership with our incredible clinical and operations teams that deliver quality care to patients every day.

We are still early in the journey, and it’s a long road ahead. It’s always been humbling for me to see our front-line caregivers in action on a normal day. During COVID that sense of awe for me and my team has transitioned to a whole new level. We’re incredibly privileged that we’re able to play even a small role in supporting our heroic caregivers through this crisis. Thank you, on behalf of my team, for the opportunity to support you and the mission.

About the Author

Aaron Martin

Aaron is Executive Vice President, Chief Digital Officer, Providence, and Managing General Partner, Providence Ventures (PV). Providence is a not-for-profit health system providing care to people across seven western states. The organization has served the Western U.S. for more than a century and together comprise 120,000 caregivers who serve in 51 hospitals, 829 clinics and hundreds of programs and services. Aaron is responsible for the digital, web, mobile and online marketing channel for Providence. His team is also responsible for driving innovative new programs across the system that improve convenience, lower cost and improve quality. Aaron is also responsible for early stage/venture technology and medical device investments for Providence Venture's $150M fund. Aaron serves as an observer/board member on the boards of PV portfolio companies AVIA, Kyruus, and Xealth.

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